The Good Mothers: The True Story of the Women Who Took on the World’s Most Powerful Mafia
by Alex Perry.
William Morrow, 333 pp., $27.99
When I traveled to Calabria in the early 1990s, its mafia, known as the ’Ndrangheta, had a far more pervasive and suffocating hold on the region than the Cosa Nostra had on Sicily or the Camorra had on Campania. In the plains around the port city of Gioia Tauro, the livestock of local mafia bosses, known as “sacred cows,” wandered freely and ate wherever they pleased. In Taurianova, ’Ndranghetisi killed a man, cut off his head, and used it for target practice in one of the main piazzas. Throughout the region, I routinely saw trash rotting in the streets: local ’Ndrangheta families had won contracts for trash removal, and there was not much pressure on them to actually remove it.
The towns looked poor, but expensive luxury cars were frequently parked in their centers, often illegally. A hapless, dedicated traffic cop had been shot and killed for placing a parking ticket on one belonging to an ’Ndrangheta boss. In the evenings, when the towns were dark and quiet, I had the impression that people had entirely surrendered and stayed safely inside their houses.
When I returned to Calabria a couple of years ago, however, it seemed radically different: there were anti-mafia groups and lively public debates about the influence of the ’Ndrangheta. There was even a “No Bull” movement to try to address the “sacred cow” problem. Mafia-type organized crime depends in part on a social consensus made up of tacit acquiescence, a culture of silence, and a mixture of fear and respect, mingled with suspicion of legal authorities. That consensus had begun to break down in Sicily twenty-five or thirty years ago when the ruthless brutality of the Cosa Nostra became evident, while serious efforts by police, prosecutors, and ordinary citizens to challenge its power gained in credibility. The same thing appeared to be happening in Calabria.
The ’Ndrangheta, along with the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, is one of Italy’s major crime organizations, and although it is the least well known of the three, it is likely the most powerful. The name “’Ndrangheta” is believed to have been derived from the Greek word andragathia, meaning goodness and manly virtue—Calabria in antiquity was part of Magna Grecia, and many words in its local dialects come from ancient Greek. An important part of the ’Ndrangheta’s strength is its seeming impenetrability: by limiting its membership strictly to close blood relatives, it reduces the likelihood of betrayal, since turning on your partners in crime means turning on your own family. Each family is linked to a town and its surrounding area, while also being part of a larger hierarchical structure. Individual families enjoy a fair degree of autonomy in running their affairs, but an elected leader (capo crimine) is chosen to help adjudicate disputes among them in order to minimize violence. The Cosa Nostra is also organized into “families,” but while blood relations are important, membership is also open to enterprising and violent young men outside of immediate kinship groups. The Camorra is even more loosely structured, which has resulted in almost constant jockeying for power, as well as a great deal of violence and many defections.
The Cosa Nostra suffered huge setbacks during the late 1980s and 1990s: its dominant clans murdered virtually all the public officials who opposed them while carrying out a vicious extermination campaign against other mafia families. This provoked a huge police crackdown, which was backed by large public demonstrations, and it resulted in hundreds of former members agreeing to testify in dozens of major trials. The ’Ndrangheta moved aggressively into the Cosa Nostra’s drug markets and, taking advantage of widespread Calabrian immigration to four continents (North and South America, Northern Europe, and Australia), it expanded rapidly around the world while maintaining its compact clan structure. It was, as the journalist Alex Perry writes in his excellent new book, The Good Mothers, “a diabolical perversion of the Italian family, which was the heart and essence of the nation.”
By shrewdly reinvesting drug profits in vast real estate holdings and legitimate businesses, the ’Ndrangheta has been remarkably successful. “The prosecutors’ best guess,” Perry writes, “was that every year the organization amassed revenues of $50 billion to $100 billion, equivalent to up to 3.5 percent of the Italian GDP, or twice the annual revenues of Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Ferrari, and Maserati combined.” Once thought by many to consist of poor rural bandits, kidnappers, and goat thieves, the ’Ndrangheta has grown into one of the richest crime organizations in the world.
Alessandra Cerreti, a prosecutor from Sicily, discovered a weakness in the seemingly unbreakable bonds of loyalty among the ’Ndrangheta. After taking a job in the Reggio Calabria prosecutor’s office, she cultivated relationships with women who had been arrested or had shown some willingness to speak to police. Cerreti realized, Alex Perry writes in The Good Mothers,
that the ’Ndrangheta’s cult of blood, family, and tradition also accounted for its oppression of its women. That misogynist tyranny was real enough. Driving through small-town Calabria, Alessandra rarely saw women out of doors and almost never unaccompanied.
For men, the ’Ndrangheta offered wealth, power, and prestige along with deadly risks. But for women it was a claustrophobic world with few benefits: they were married off at an early age to young gangsters, lived under constant surveillance, and were expected to produce children who were faced with limited choices: for boys, kill, be killed, and possibly go to prison; for girls, become ’Ndrangheta brides, as their mothers had. Perry’s book follows the stories of three women who rebelled against this life by testifying against their families.
One of the first who did so was Lea Garofalo. Her father was an ’Ndrangheta boss who was murdered when she was just eight months old, setting off a feud that lasted throughout her childhood. Her uncle was murdered when she was seven, and another relative was killed in front of her when she was fifteen. Lea thought she could escape her family after she fell in love with a local man then working in Milan, whom she married at age sixteen. She then discovered that her husband, Carlo Cosco, was actually a rising gangster working for her brother and running an ’Ndrangheta operation in Milan that sold cocaine and heroin. What for her had been true love was for him a shrewd career move: marrying the boss’s sister.
After witnessing various acts of violence, including a murder in which her husband was involved, Lea begged him to leave the ’Ndrangheta. When he refused, she eventually went to the police and began to testify against him and her brother. “You don’t live,” Lea told the carabinieri in 2002. “You just survive in some way. You dream about something—anything—because nothing’s worse than that life.”
The second and perhaps most significant female witness was Giuseppina Pesce, a member of one of Calabria’s most important ’Ndrangheta families. She stopped going to school at thirteen when she met her future husband, whose father managed firearms for the Pesce clan’s criminal network. She eloped with him at fourteen and gave birth to the first of their three children at fifteen. Her husband was soon in prison, but her own life was similarly confined: her family refused to let her divorce, return to school, or even keep up her piano lessons. To relieve her boredom, she began to do criminal work for the family, passing messages and laundering money.
The third woman Perry discusses, Maria Concetta Cacciola, was a friend of Giuseppina Pesce from their hometown, Rosarno, and like Giuseppina she had met her husband, who was twenty-one at the time, when she was thirteen. She had the first of their children at age fifteen, and she conceived two of her children during conjugal visits to prison. Both Giuseppina’s and Concetta’s husbands beat them.
“By their early twenties,” Perry writes, “Giuseppina and Concetta were alone, married to jailbird husbands, and mothers to three children each.” Since protecting the honor of an ’Ndrangheta wife was of the greatest importance, the wives of convicted members were supported and watched by family members. Concetta’s father acted as guardian of the family’s reputation while her husband was in prison, once smacking her to the ground after she returned later than expected from a shopping trip.
Not surprisingly, the Internet offered a kind of freedom for these confined women, and Concetta began a relationship with a man she met online. “In the land of the ’Ndrangheta, the Internet is an open window in a closed world,” Cerreti told Perry. “It introduces women to a free world. It tends to provoke a kind of emotional explosion.” Another source told him, “There are cases of women falling in love with people who treat them like human beings…they come to understand that they are prisoners in their families.”
Giuseppina also began an extramarital affair. “He was the first man who seemed to care for my children,” she later told Italian authorities. “He was the first man to respect me as a woman, the first who ever loved me.” At the same time, she knew that she was running a mortal risk. “In my family, those who betray and dishonor the family must be punished by death,” she later testified. “It is a law.” It was a measure of her desperation that Giuseppina went ahead with the clandestine affair. She was with her lover when police arrested her as part of a larger raid on the Pesce clan. Knowing that she had more to fear from her family than from prosecutors, she agreed to cooperate. Based on Giuseppina’s testimony, the Italian government “would confiscate a total of 260 million in property from the Pesces and the ’Ndrangheta, including forty businesses, four villas, forty-four apartments, 164 cars, sixty plots of land, and two soccer teams,” as well as indict some sixty-four ’Ndrangheta defendants, Perry writes.
These women defected not only to gain their own freedom but in the hope of giving their children a better life. Giuseppina’s family understood this and realized that the way to get to her was through her kids. They had been left with her in-laws back in Calabria while she was in prison. Police eventually brought them to a safe location where they were reunited with their mother, but when her in-laws sent the children their clothing they slipped in the cell phone of Angela, the eldest girl. Giuseppina’s daughter began speaking regularly to her aunt, uncle, and grandmother, who reminded her of everything she was missing out on back home. “Tell your mother you want to be with us,” her aunt told her. “If she wants to go on, she should go on alone. But you come back to us.” This created great tension between Giuseppina and her daughter, who accused her mother of making her and her siblings abandon their lives for selfish reasons. The daughter stopped eating and became unwell.
Eventually the in-laws lured Giuseppina onto the phone and explained that her husband was prepared to forgive her and that there would be no retribution for her actions. They put her in touch with a defense lawyer who prepared a statement, which Giuseppina copied by hand, claiming that she had been pressured into making a series of false statements during a period of weakness and ill health. When Cerreti arrived for a meeting with Giuseppina, she suddenly refused to sign the nearly two thousand pages of testimony she had given over the previous six months. “I had made the choice to make my daughter’s life better, but collaborating had ended up hurting my daughter,” she said.
Cerreti invoked a minor rule of the witness protection program in order to detain Giuseppina before she could return to Calabria. Isolated and alarmed by the profusion of letters from her family, whose overemphatic expressions of support seemed like veiled threats, she decided once again to collaborate with prosecutors.
Giuseppina was the only one of the three women to survive. Concetta Cacciola was enticed back home through similar manipulation of her children and died under suspicious circumstances after drinking a bottle of hydrochloric acid. Her family was conveniently absent at the time of her death, though they normally kept her under constant watch, and prosecutors were convinced that no one could force herself to drink a liter of hydrochloric acid. Although not convicted of murder, her family was found responsible for causing her death. Ironically, they unintentionally incriminated themselves by saying that she had died of shame, implying, in effect, that they regarded cooperating with police as a crime worthy of death—a view they impressed on their daughter.
Lea Garofalo also struggled to live under the strictures of Italy’s witness protection program with an increasingly restless teenage daughter. She eventually got back in touch with her husband, who had been released from prison. He lured the family back to Milan for what seemed to be a reconciliation. Instead he arranged to have her murdered and her body burned so it would appear that she had run away. Her daughter Denise testified against her father, and in a remarkable turn of events, the henchman who had been charged with destroying Lea’s body had fallen in love with Denise. He incriminated himself and Lea’s husband and helped authorities find her remains, allowing prosecutors to secure a murder conviction.
The information that Lea, Concetta, and Giuseppina provided about the organizational structure of the ’Ndrangheta not only led to arrests and prosecutions. The public trials dealing with Lea’s and Concetta’s murders as well as the trials made possible by all three women’s testimony helped to stimulate an awakening of Calabrian civil society. There were large demonstrations of solidarity on their behalf—their faces appeared on posters, T-shirts, and banners—suggesting that the ’Ndrangheta’s hegemony had been broken.
Perry’s narrow focus in his book on these three women, however, leads him to emphasize the personal and cultural dimensions of the ’Ndrangheta, and as a result he gives insufficient attention to the economic and political power of organized crime in southern Italy. In 1994 Giuseppe Piromalli, the boss of Gioia Tauro, stood up in open court and announced that he would be supporting Silvio Berlusconi in the upcoming elections. Piromalli’s statement may have been an attempt to influence the vote, a signal to the political world, or simply an expression of his power; whichever it was, Berlusconi’s new Forza Italia party waged an aggressive campaign in Calabria, often directed against anti-mafia prosecutors whom it accused of overreaching and damaging the region’s economy. Perry mentions that the ’Ndrangheta has politicians in its pockets, but we don’t grasp the importance of this because they were not part of the Garofalo, Pesce, and Cacciola cases.
The economic gap between Italy’s prosperous north and center and its underdeveloped southern third has been a persistent problem since the country’s unification in the late nineteenth century. Even today, Calabria is the poorest of Italy’s twenty regions, with a standard of living half that of the north and an unemployment rate of 22 percent. Direct foreign investment is nearly nonexistent in southern Italy: corruption, organized crime, and poor infrastructure make operating there expensive and dangerous.
Over the past half-century, the Italian government has tried to compensate for this disparity by directing a steady flow of tax dollars to the south in the form of public works projects, pensions, unemployment benefits, government jobs, and subsidies to the health care system. This has to some degree mitigated the extremely high levels of unemployment and has prevented social unrest. But it also has created endless opportunities for corrupt politicians and violent criminals to enrich themselves by skimming money from government appropriations, directing contracts and subcontracts to ’ Ndrangheta-controlled firms, and awarding jobs and pensions to their own people. It has fed, in other words, the vicious cycle that keeps out legitimate business.
In the 1970s the Christian Democratic Italian government (with the active encouragement of the left) appropriated (and wasted) tens of billions of dollars to build one of the country’s largest steel plants in Calabria, but the project was abandoned because of a crisis in the steel industry. Similarly, construction of a huge coal-driven electricity plant was started and abandoned. Both projects were the product of a political desire to create development rather than to meet any real market demand; they served, unintentionally, to greatly enrich the local ’Ndrangheta families. When I visited the area in 1992, the local prosecutor, Agostino Cordova, recounted to me how during the construction of the port facility dynamite would go off at night as the ’Ndrangheta clans fought to take over the operation. “When the dynamiting stopped, we knew the clans had won.”
The government ultimately completed construction of a huge seaport at Gioia Tauro (the sixth largest in the Mediterranean), which was originally meant to serve the steel plant. But according to a 2006 Italian government report, 80 percent of Europe’s cocaine arrives in Gioia Tauro. Perry notes that “the railway that connected Gioia Tauro to Europe stopped 1.5 kilometers short of the port, meaning all the cargo”—legal and illegal—“from one of the biggest Mediterranean container ports had to be loaded onto mafia-owned trucks and driven three minutes to the station.” The port’s legitimate business has struggled in recent years, no doubt a result of mafia control. Local governments have often been unable to stop criminal activity: between 1991 and 2006, the city councils of some eighty municipalities in Calabria—including Gioia Tauro, Reggio Calabria, and Rosarno (Giuseppina and Concetta’s hometown)—were dissolved by the Italian government because they were found to be controlled by the ’Ndrangheta.
According to Perry the ’Ndrangheta’s power remains essentially intact, but he doesn’t give a full picture of its size and complexity. The ’Ndranghetisti we meet in The Good Mothers are simply crude, violent thugs. Yet the ’Ndrangheta has mutated into a highly sophisticated organization with well-educated gangsters who are comfortable in the world of international commerce and launder money through corporations, real estate, and offshore banking centers. According to investigators, its core business is exporting cocaine from South America to the rest of the world, but it also deals in real estate in Germany and Austria, hotels and casinos in Russia, diamonds in South Africa, toxic waste in Somalia, heroin in Turkey and Lebanon, and slot machines in Malta—a global reach made possible by a network of cooperating lawyers and bankers.
While mafia prosecutions are useful, they are a bit like cutting the grass: the influence of organized crime usually grows back. Perry explains that even as prosecutors enjoy important victories in court, they sense that the organization is slipping through their grasp:
The prosecutors often felt like they were in a losing race against time. Hundreds of billions of ’Ndrangheta euros and dollars had been already successfully laundered beyond reach or reproach…. Franco Roberti, head of Italy’s anti-mafia and anti terrorism office, lamented the lack of cooperation his investigators received in London or New York or Hong Kong, let alone the centers of secret banking on paradise islands around the world. Foreign governments “don’t want to believe that the problem of the ’Ndrangheta is their problem, too,” he said. “They want to believe that their money doesn’t stink.”
The cases that Perry writes about enabled prosecutors to put 127 ’Ndranghetisti on trial, proved that the group was operating in about 120 locations around the world, and broke the culture of silence surrounding it. “By the end of 2015, the judiciary could count 164 pentiti [former Mafiosi turned state’s witnesses] and twenty-nine witnesses who had testified against the ’Ndrangheta,” Perry writes. But as Cerreti tells Perry, “We can’t fight the ’Ndrangheta just by putting people in jail…. We need a cultural change. We need a change in people’s minds.” Unfortunately, the problem goes deeper than culture: it involves changing the economic structure of southern Italy, reducing its extreme dependence on public money, and creating a healthy private economy there. That would involve a painful, complex period of transition that no political party in Italy has the stomach to undertake. ■